I felt a little sad on Sunday, the first day of November. Nostalgic, because it was also the opening day of National Novel Writing Month.
Last November, for the first time, I joined hundreds of thousands of aspiring novelists in that crazy, exhilarating NaNoWriMo marathon. I thought of it as an experiment—and as a way to stay busy while I awaited the publication of my first book, a music memoir, in January.
On November 31, I crossed the finish line with a 50,000+ word first draft of a novel, my very first. A mystery, with music themes.
I continued to work on the mystery this past year, in between promoting Accordion Dreams and working at my day job. I revised and expanded. Submitted chapters to my critique group. Finally, just over a month ago, I sent the mystery to my agent, to see what she thought. Did it have a future?
In a word: No.
My agent had a few kind words to say about some features of the book. But she saw nothing but problems with one key element: The plot. Too flimsy. Vague and complicated, at the same time. Not compelling enough to hold the interest of readers—or a potential publisher.
More revision—on this book, or anything similar—was not what my agent had in mind. She put it bluntly: this genre didn’t strike her as my forte. She urged me to get back to that second nonfiction project I’d mentioned to her a few years ago. That book about my ethnic heritage. My “dark Slovenian roots,” as she put it. She recalled that it sounded promising.
I allowed myself a day to feel a litte bit sorry for myself. I had no regrets about the time spent on my now-retired novel, since I’d enjoyed the process and learned so much. But I felt sad to say good-bye to my characters. I’d grown fond of them—and attached to the fictional world I’d created. Writing fiction is like having your own private playground. I had no idea how seductive it could be.
“Don’t Mourn, organize!” I don’t recall who said that, but it seemed like good advice. The next day, I re-organized my bookshelves and my computer files. Set the fiction-writing books aside. Pulled together all the material I’ve been reading about Slovenia and the Balkans, a couple of bookshelves full. Re-read the informal proposal I'd written a few years ago, along with the short pieces I'd already written. Gathered together the scattered Internet sites I'd saved. (I finally figured out how to create a “Bookmarks” folder.)
Only then did it hit me: I've been working on this all along. This is the mystery I wanted to write in the first place. A real life mystery.
So now I have started back into my Slovenian project in earnest. Tangled roots. Shame about an obscure little country most people can't find on a map. Family secrets. The mysterious death—and subsequent fall into obscurity—of my grandmother's cousin, a Slovenian immigrant like my grandfather. Except Louis Adamic was a famous writer and journalist in the 1930s and 1940s. A leftist and an early multiculturalist. The only writer I’ve found in the family tree.
Even though I won’t be doing NaNoWriMo, I do plan to write every day—without the pressure of producing the daily 1667 words. Those big word count goals don’t work so well for nonfiction—even for memoir. I have to do research, or at least fact checking, along the way. But I hope I can harness some of that wonderful zest and energy I remember from last November.
My own personal Non-Novel Writing Month. Or, to put it more positively: National Nonfiction Writing Month. NaNonWriMo.
Good luck to all you November writers, NaNo or Not.
Or, as they'd say in Slovene, Na Zdravje! Cheers!
Causes Blair Kilpatrick Supports
Louisiana Folk Roots, National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, Habitat for Humanity/Musician's Village New Orleans, Doctors Without Borders